Sermon for Easter 5 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“See, I am making all things new.” God’s proclamation from the throne struck me in this week’s reading as it had not done before, because I had always heard it in the older translations, which I usually prefer: “behold, I make all things new.” The two translations seem to indicate two quite different things- the former, newer translation implies a process of re-creation; God is making all things new. The latter, older translation seems to imply a more instant re-creation, at whatever point in the future the vision from Revelation becomes a reality.

The more modern, process oriented translation might strike us as being more compelling. It suggests the re-creation of the world, the making of all things new, might already be in process, and we might have a part to play in it. If such were the case, there would be great fodder in this little verse for an inspiring sermon about how we’re building the city of God now, so let’s all join in and help.

Unfortunately, the more modern translation which we heard read this morning, as is too often the case with the particular translation (the New Revised Standard Version) which we use and which has gained a great deal of currency in the Church, makes an interpretive leap here. The verb ποιῶ, or make, is found in the verse in question in the present active indicative, which could be understood as bearing either of two aspects (something we don’t have to worry about in English), either the linear or the punctiliar, that is, either the continuous or the complete. While older translations seem universally satisfied with the latter, the NRSV opts for the former, I suspect, though I cannot prove it, based on what last week I called an “idealist view” of Revelation.

This is an important translation issue, and not just from a Greek scholar’s perspective. It is important, because the older, and I believe more faithful, translation implies a reality which is hard for us relatively progressive Christians to hear- namely, that the Kingdom of God is not primarily some building project in which we’re involved as architects and workers. Rather, the Kingdom of God, at least as it is in its fullness after the general resurrection, is a project whose blueprint is already drafted in the mind of God and whose completion is God’s alone to effect.

This fact has, during certain periods of the Church’s history, been ignored. Most notably, as I suggested last week, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Industrialization had taken hold in Europe and the United States, the pioneers were moving farther west on our own continent, and relative peace and prosperity had been established. Theologians believed that the world was in the midst of a process leading to perfection through human ingenuity. Growing peace and prosperity, along with a particular interpretation of the work of Charles Darwin, had led many to believe that humanity was evolving into the Kingdom of God, that the establishment of God’s reign on this earth was within the grasp of men meaning to help build it. If God were making all things new, it was believed, now had come the time to accomplish God’s work for him.

Of course, all this came to a crashing halt with the eruption of the First World War. Humans had not lifted themselves from the reality of sin and death by their own cleverness. They had not grown to the point where they could accomplish all of God’s work for him after all.

There are, however, still some who hold the view of the nineteenth century liberal movement, who believe that if they just try hard enough, they’ll build the City of God. They have the best possible intentions, and no doubt many have accomplished great things for the sake of the Gospel. Even so, nothing we do or have within ourselves by virtue of being ourselves can possibly effect the glorious vision God has given us of the life of the world to come, and we need the humility to recognize our limitations in this regard. Hear again, the vision God gave to John of Patmos of the Kingdom at its completion:

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

We are no doubt called to make the world a better place, but if we think our own efforts can eliminate all our ills, we are sadly mistaken.

This might at first sound discouraging, but it is, in the final analysis, very good news indeed. It means that eternal life in the presence of God is not some metaphor for peaceful human society built by human ingenuity, but is exactly what it sounds like: eternal life with God. It’s good news because it means that it’s not all on us to make it a reality. God makes all things new. He’s not in some process of helping humanity perfect itself and build its own Kingdom; he will on the last day raise us from the dead and he will come down to dwell with us into eternity. This takes a lot of the pressure off. It does not, of course, exempt us from living a Christian life and loving our neighbors in word and deed; but it does mean that our own eternal happiness is not ours to effect, but God’s to give as his greatest gift. We need only to be humble enough to recognize that it is God who gives us the victory and not we ourselves, and to offer Him the only thing we can, which is genuine thanks.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 4 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We reënter the narrative of John’s Apocalypse this week a chapter-and-a-half past where we left off last week, and once again we are sadly deprived of some context by the lectionary. This is probably unavoidable, since we’d be in church an awful lot longer if we read several chapters instead of several verses in our Sunday lections (I wouldn’t mind this as I’m all for longer church services, but I recognize I’m in the minority), but it is nonetheless unfortunate.

In all events, after last week’s lesson describing the glory of God and the Lamb being worshiped by the beasts and elders–which I interpreted as encompassing human experience of secular and religious authority as well as the dichotomy of human potential and human limitations–and the presentation of a scroll to the Lamb, understood as Jesus himself. In the chapter preceding this morning’s lesson, Christ opens six of the seven seals, revealing the nature of the tribulation which would be faced by early Christians: first four horsemen symbolizing the conquering power of the state, warfare and bloodshed, famine, and pestilence; then martyrdom and social upheaval symbolized by images of cosmic disaster.

There have been various views throughout the Church’s two thousand year history on what these images signify and (most controversially) when they did or will happen, and I’ve already given away my view if you were paying close attention, but it bears repeating that this is not the only view which an orthodox Christian can hold. In very broad terms, there are four competing schools of thought. First, there are those which hold that most or all of the things described in Revelation have yet to take place, a particularly popular view among fundamentalist evangelicals, and this view is unsurprising called futurism. There are those who believe most or all of them took place in the first century, and this view is called preterism. There are those who believe that many of the events described took place between late antiquity and the early modern period, the view held almost universally by the Protestant reformers for reasons that may be obvious if you understand how skeptical they were of practices in the medieval church, and this view is called historicism. Finally, there are those who hold that the images in revelation are entirely symbolic and refer to ongoing struggles between justice and injustice in the world, unsurprisingly a view held by nineteenth century liberal theologians and those who have inherited their mantle, and this view is called idealism.

If you haven’t guessed already, your rector’s view is what is usually called “partial preterism” or somewhat contentiously “orthodox preterism.” So, I believe, that there are still some things which have not taken place– namely, the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in its fullness–because I believe the scripture and creeds bind one to a literal understanding of those events. Thus, I cannot be a full preterist (or an idealist, for that matter), but I do believe that much of the apocalyptic material, including the tribulation described in Revelation 6, took place in the first century, contra the futurists and historicists.

This sets the stage for chapter seven, the second half of which is the reading you heard a few minutes ago. In its footnotes, the study bible I use (the Oxford Annotated Bible), employs a rather underwhelming title for this chapter: “An Interlude.” It is rather more interesting than that title suggests, though, else it probably wouldn’t have been assigned for a Sunday morning. There is something critical we miss out on in skipping the first eight verses of the chapter, however. Before the great, uncountable multitude appears at the beginning of the lesson we heard, we are shown “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth,” and God demands that before they permit any further destruction to be unleashed they mark with a seal of protection 144,000 people, 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. This is not, I would contend (along with the teaching of the church throughout its history), to be taken as a literal number of those spared, but as a symbol of comprehensiveness. All whom God has been given in his Covenant with the children of Israel, are reckoned among the elect. While John’s contributions to the New Testament (including Revelation) have sometimes been charged with antisemitism, and while, sadly, it has often been interpreted in antisemitic ways, the text itself does not fall victim to this charge, but in fact explicitly requires the opposite reading.

Only after a clear affirmation that God remains faithful to his covenant with the Jews, do we hear the glorious news of the expansion of that same amazing grace to all humanity: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

Note here that we have images of victory in the midst of defeat, of life and death concurrently. The palm branches are an image we associate with both Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his death shortly thereafter (we do read the Passion story on Palm Sunday, after all). The robes are white, the symbol of purity and light and new life, but we are reminded later in the reading that they have been made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb.

These connections between–Jew and Gentile, victorious and defeated, living and dead–is made even more explicit later in the lesson, though it is easily lost in translation. Where in our translation we are told that the one who is seated on the throne will “shelter” the faithful, the Greek σκηνώσει literally means “will spread his tabernacle,” calling to mind the tent in which the children of Israel made their sacrifices while wandering in the wilderness and into which only the priests of that nation were permitted entry. Now all are encompassed within the walls of the tent, and the sacrificial lamb is no longer slain but enthroned.

Now, there is a funny thing going on here, and it’s the one way in which the Oxford Annotated Bible‘s underwhelming footnote title for this passage, “an interlude” is quite right. It’s an interludium, literally a “between acts of play or of a play,” set on the stage of the play of human history or the playing field of the game of human striving. It is, in fact, an interlude which takes us outside the realm of chronology which we project on the world in order to make sense of it as temporal creatures, to that realm in which God dwells with the saints unbound by that earthly convention we call time.

So what I said earlier about the ordeal described in Revelation referring to events of the first century rather than the twenty-first should not take away from the fact that life in the twenty-first century can just as easily be reckoned an ordeal from which we are only saved by the source of our hope, which is in eternity. We are unlikely in Findlay, Ohio in the Year of our Lord 2019, to suffer as much or in the same way as Christians under Nero in A.D. 64 or the Jews under Vespasian and Titus in the A.D. 70s, or both the Jews and the Christians by Domitian in the A.D. 90s (which one John might have been thinking of and the precise date of Revelation’s composition is a debate we can have at another time).

Our struggles are quite different than those of the first century, but that doesn’t mean they should be minimized. Life can be a struggle, whether we’re talking about quotidian irritations or real tragedies. Life comes with moments of great joy, but because the world is fallen, life is also an ordeal. But at the last, just as those who came through it in the first century, we will also come through the ordeal and enter into the land in which the Good Shepherd will lead us to the springs of the water of life and wipe away the every tear from our eyes.

So it’s mother’s day, right, and I’m going to probably lose my liturgical-curmudgeon membership card for even mentioning it, since it’s a secular rather than a sacred holiday, but it can make for a good illustration. Motherhood (parenthood in general) can be the context for great joy. Now I don’t have children, so I cannot verify this, but I’ve heard it can be a great ordeal as well. This is the best case scenario, right? Your kids will turn out healthy and well-adjusted; it just might be a challenge getting them there sometimes. But then there are those estranged from their children. There are those whose children cannot seem to get their lives together. There are those who have had to bury a child. There are those who wanted to have children but were unable, and a day like Mother’s Day can be very difficult. Whatever the difficulty, whatever the ordeal, whatever the tragedy, we are assured today that in the end the tabernacle will be spread out over all of us who have been made clean in the blood of the Lamb.

I’ve held off for three weeks, cooled down a bit, so now I guess I’ll say something about that provoking (and not in a good way) interview Nicholas Kristof did with Union Seminary Dean and Disciples of Christ Pastor Serene Jones that was published in the New York Times on Easter Sunday. Jones denies bodily Resurrection, the omnipotence of God, the Virgin Birth, and the efficacy of prayer. It’s all the rather dull secular humanism wrapped in religious language–nineteenth century liberal Protestantism warmed over–that makes me wonder why anyone would bother going to church. There are plenty of Rotary and Kiwanis and Junior League meetings to attend. They cost more, I guess, but the food is better.

Anyway, of course Dr. Jones is asked about life-after-death, and of course she doesn’t say anything about the possibility of the existence of heaven (she does absolutely deny the possibility of the existence of hell, though that’s pretty standard fare in certain circles). She says that after we die, “I don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing.” She then basically says that it doesn’t matter, because her faith isn’t based on that.

My response to this will probably not surprise any of you who knows anything about my own theology (or the theology of the Church, for that matter). It does matter. It matters a great deal. And my faith, for what it’s worth, is based on the belief that God’s justice and mercy win in the end and that we have a future with God more radiant than we can imagine.

I was reminded of this just last week at our annual clergy conference, when a group of my colleagues and I were talking about a new history of Anglicanism, which takes up again the old question of the degree to which our church was actually reformed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the degree to which it wasn’t. The volume suggests that even after the Restoration and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer there was still no clear resolution on that question, and so it remains. A colleague of mine said something like “well, this is the problem when we don’t have a confessional history like the rest of historic protestantism; thank goodness we don’t have to affirm everything in something like the Westminster Catechism, though I wish we could have just the first article of that document.” I proceeded to ask him the question to which he referred “What is the chief end of man?” to which he appropriately responded “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Forever. That’s the vision we get in this interlude in Revelation. That’s the promise. Whatever the trials of this our current tribulation, whatever personal or communal ordeal besets us, we are in that uncountable company which John sees arrayed around the throne. Even now in the timeless region of God’s experience we are there robed in white, carrying the symbols of victory, being led and comforted by the Good Shepherded, and then, on that last, great day, our faith shall become sight. We will enjoy God forever. Thanks be to God who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 3 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So, last week we talked about the book of Revelation’s genre and its protagonist. Today we get to start with the creepy stuff- four beasts, twenty four elders, and the lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. Before we get to that, though, one might ask why Revelation has so much weird imagery. The short answer is that the apocalypse (though, as I mentioned last week, it is meant as a revelatory text) contained a politically dangerous and thus coded message. It’s not coded in the sense of requiring some sort of decoder ring or invisible ink detector. Don’t go out and read the Bible Code, the popular book from about twenty years ago which claims to find all sorts of information about Twentieth Century events and the end of the world in the bible by stringing together letters from a sequence. The book is stupid, and its author, Michael Drosnin, actually believes the code was put there by space aliens. He also claimed the world was going to end in 2006; but here we are.

No, when I say that Revelation is in a sort of code language, I mean that it uses symbols to stand in for figures and events from the first century which were too politically dangerous to make explicit. There is a great deal about the anti-Christ and the number “666” and the beast from the sea and so forth which Christians would have been able to understand as speaking about the Roman Empire and its leaders, but which pagan Romans would have just seen as strange fever dream kinda stuff.

Unfortunately, since the Episcopal Church’s adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, we miss the first five verses of the lesson as we would have hear it previously, presumably because even the architects of this new lectionary thought it too weird to include in the church’s liturgical life, so let me read those verses now:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth;

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

So, what on earth is going on here? Let’s take each of the images in turn. First, the four beasts. In the previous chapter, John had described these living creatures in some detail. One was a lion, one an ox, one an eagle, and one a man. Traditionally, these have been seen as symbols of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and their writers. The problem with this interpretation is that there were not four canonical Gospels when revelation was written. In fact, there was at the time no New Testament Canon – no list of what books were in and out of the bible as we have received it today. I want to suggest, then, that the identification of the creatures and the evangelists is a later interpretation. It is certainly a part of the Church’s Tradition and worthy of consideration and appreciation, but it is not the only valid way of viewing the symbol.

Here is my interpretation of the symbolic nature of the beasts. It is based in biblical scholarship, not just my own opinion, and I find it the most compelling explanation, but it is just one of many interpretations. The lion, I believe, represents political authority. The lion had served as a symbol for the tribe of Judah in the Ancient Near East and was meant to highlight that tribe’s power, as it ruled in Jerusalem. Jesus himself is referred to the “Lion of Judah” in Revelation in relation to his status as King of Kings. We find lions in medieval heraldry for much the same reason. More recently, as some of you may know, the rapper Snoop Dogg changed his name to Snoop Lion upon his conversion to Rastafarianism as a means of identifying himself with Haille Selasie, the Ethiopian king who serves as that religion’s messiah figure and who was called a lion.

The ox, I believe, symbolizes cultural and religious authority. Oxen were important both to agriculture in the Ancient Near East (they plowed the land) and to the cult of the temple (they were sacrificed in religious rites). For the average Israelite, the political power had a great influence on life in the form of law and taxes, and the authority du jour was an occasionally beneficent (as in the case of the Persians) and often malevolent (in the case of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans) determinant of wellbeing. The religious power was just as important. They leveled their own taxes, ruled on issues of orthodoxy, and promised either redemption or condemnation based on the quality of sacrifices made at the temple. It’s notable that the chief priest and his advisers were as instrumental as Herod and Pilate in Jesus’ execution.

Then we have the eagle and the man, which I believe to be symbols respectively of human potential and the reality of human frailty. We try and sometimes succeed in accomplishing great things on our own steam. But the greatest of us are eventually brought low, by death if by nothing else.

So we’ve got the two greatest sorts of authority humanity experiences on the macro level (political and religious authority) and the two prevailing aspects of the human experience on the micro level (potential and limitedness).

Then we have twenty-four elders. Again, we are told in the preceding chapter that they are clothed in white (a symbol of purity) and that they are seated on thrones (a symbol of rule). These represent the Church as a whole. All have been made clean in Baptism and all have been made kings and priests, as the apostle tells us. Perhaps there are twenty-four of them as a symbol of the unity of and equality between Jews and Gentiles in the Church. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and the inclusion of non-Israelites doubled the size church (though eventually there were far more Gentiles than Jews in the Church as the Good News spread swiftly throughout the known world).

Finally, we see the Lamb standing as though it had been slain. This is a lot easier to interpret. Revelation is, as I said earlier, never explicit, but this image is hard for a Christian to miss. The lamb is Jesus himself, who was slain but now stands.

And now, at last, we get to the point. The lamb is in the center of the scene and the beasts and the elders bow down and worship, burning incense which is described as being “the prayers of the saints.” The lamb, Christ Jesus, is the only one deemed worthy to open the scroll which holds within it the things to come. Earthly kings cannot do it, nor can some high priest. No human effort can frustrate the course of divine history, neither can human frailty cause the divine plan to fail. Even the Church, that gift from God which is the Body of Christ here on earth cannot determine the course of human history. Only Jesus can, and all any of us can do is acknowledge his supremacy.

This is very good news, indeed! There are scary and disappointing things in the world right now, as there always have been. Violence and poverty and drug abuse and the dissolution of the family and a host of other ills beset us. But in terms of eternity, we can have hope.

Humanity’s inherent goodness and humanity’s inclination toward wickedness have made micro-loans to peasants and poisoned their water sources. We’ve set up charity clinics and we’ve made it even harder for the poorest among us to receive medical care. The human endeavor is a mixed bag of righteous striving and of wickedness. But in terms of eternity, we can have hope.

We cannot use our hope for justice in eternity as an excuse for the evil we do and the evil which is done on our behalf now. But we can give thanks that all the powers of this world have got nothing on Jesus Christ. We can give thanks that while we will be called to account for our actions in this life, the fate of our world is in the hands of the all-merciful. We can give thanks that all things will be subjected to the rule of him who is the first and the last and the living one, who will, on that glorious day, put all things to rights for us and for those whom we have wronged. Thanks be to God who gives us and our neighbors and our enemies and the stranger the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.